Despite Snarled Traffic and Cold, City Is Already Celebrating

The mood is a festive one as crowds start to jam Washington, D.C. in advance of Barack Obama's inauguration. Video by AP
By Paul Duggan and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tens of thousands of festive visitors crowded the Mall and the city yesterday, counting down the hours to today's historic inauguration, while authorities prepared to welcome -- and control -- what could be the largest crowd in Washington's history.

Today's the day. The swearing-in of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president on the west steps of the Capitol at noon is expected to draw between 1 million and 3 million spectators. They'll bundle themselves against below-freezing temperatures, ride crowded Metro trains and buses, and wait at security checkpoints for a chance to witness the inauguration of the nation's first African American chief executive.

After the oath, they will crane for views of the new president and his family as he rides in an inaugural parade along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. They will then celebrate into the night at 10 official inaugural balls.

As final preparations went forward yesterday, temperatures hovered in the low 30s and a light snow swirled from time to time, yet the atmosphere on the Mall felt warm. Thousands upon thousands of people, smiling and snapping photos, were aglow in the moment in their heavy coats and gloves, thrilled to be in Washington for the big event.

They wore Obama hats and Obama scarves and Obama buttons.

Meanwhile, hundreds of three-ton concrete barriers were lowered into place at intersections throughout downtown, blocking traffic, as camouflage-clad soldiers and an army of police officers geared up for the biggest security operation ever seen in the nation's capital. Even 600 Boy Scouts have been enlisted in the effort to help visitors find their way around.

More than 4,000 police officers from across the country were sworn in as temporary deputies to help with crowd control. Officials prepared to close scores of roads and for the first time planned to shut the four Potomac River bridges from Virginia to the District to private vehicles to help control traffic.

By 10 p.m. yesterday, some downtown streets were shut down as police began installing barricades, causing traffic to barely inch along the clogged thoroughfares that remained open.

Authorities urged the public to walk or use public transportation to reach today's events.

"We're as ready as we're going to be in terms of our preparations," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "What concerns us are the unknowns: Will our buses be able to run on the [special] corridors due to traffic? Will people be understanding of the long waits to get into our stations both before and after the events?"

There were large-scale preparations: Washington Dulles International Airport transformed a 9,400-foot runway into a parking lot for visitors with their own aircraft. By 1:30 p.m. yesterday, 119 private planes were lined up, said Courtney Mickalonis, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. That number could reach 500 today.

There were smaller preparations, too: Late yesterday afternoon, Marsha Folsom, wife of Alabama Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. (D), emerged from Filene's Basement at 14th and F streets NW.

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